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Ambassador Series

An Interview with Barry B. White, U.S. Ambassador to Norway

Barry B. White is the current U.S. Ambassador to Norway, sworn in on October 21, 2009. Before entering the foreign service, White served as CEO of Foley Hoag LLP and as chair of Lex Mundi, an international association of law firms. He also founded the Lex Mundi Pro Bono foundation, with the mission of providing pro bono legal advice to social entrepreneurs.  White earned an A.B. from Harvard College, where he graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, and received a J.D. from Harvard Law School.

The Politic: What called you to work in the diplomatic service?

There are two kinds of ambassadorial appointments. First, there are Foreign Service Officers who have built their career in the Foreign Service.  When they get to the top, they become ambassadors. Second, there is a set of ambassadors who are appointed directly by the President; they are called political appointees.  I am a political appointee.

The Politic: Foreign Service has its highlights and its challenges.  Can you give us examples of both from your tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Norway?

It has been terrific.  The first thing I had as a newly-minted ambassador — within the first month of getting posted in Oslo — was the President coming to visit us to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.  You do not always see a presidential visit during your ambassadorship, but I saw it my first month.  That was very exciting and I got to spend a lot of time with the President and the First Lady.  It was quite a challenge, administratively, coordinating with the President’s Office and the Nobel Committee.  That was my first interesting and uplifting challenge.

The Politic: What events and areas of work have defined your interaction with the Norwegian government?

The Norwegians have been very supportive of both NATO and the United Nations — and their activities in Libya and elsewhere.  We interact with the Norwegian government on a lot of human rights issues.  For instance, Secretary of State [Hillary] Clinton visited Oslo last June to discuss matters relating to women’s global health and Arctic issues.  Norway places a lot of emphasis on the Arctic.  On the downside, we had the July 22, 2011 tragedy here where [Anders] Behring Breivik exploded a bomb outside government buildings and killed a number of youthful political leaders.

The Politic: Is there one experience, person, or event in Norway that has greatly influenced your decisions or your policies? In what way?

I spend most of my time in the business and educational communities.  I am trying to follow the President’s program to increase jobs in the United States dealing with exports. We try very hard to bring U.S. businesses here and Norwegian businesses to the U.S.  We have been very active in tourism.  Last year, for the first time ever, the United States was the favorite destination of Norwegians.  We are very pleased.  And in education, we have worked very hard to get more Norwegians to study in the U.S.  Of course, we have had some difficulties with the Norwegian government and some of its policies.  The system is a free educational system for Norwegians — all the way through the Ph.D.  They will also pay for Norwegians to study abroad, but they do not pay for all of students’ freshman year tuitions.  We have been working very hard to change that policy.

The Politic: What does the U.S. stand to learn from Norway? And vice versa?

The Norwegians have a different cultural approach to their lives.  They have the safety-net protection of socialism, they have almost equal distribution of wealth, and they provide free healthcare for every Norwegian.  That is an example that we in the United States should follow.  It is a basic human right that everyone should have access to.  But it is not without problems.  The Norwegians are learning that the money they spend on healthcare is increasing and the length of time they have to wait to get a hip replacement, for example, is quite substantial.  We have seen the growth of private clinics to fill the void.  In the United States, we have a great healthcare service, for those with insurance or who can afford it.  And we need to spread it to more people and find ways to reduce the costs.  Like the United States, Norway is also facing the issue of hospital consolidation.

The Politic: How do you facilitate the exchange between the U.S. and Norway?

There are five million people claiming Norwegian heritage currently living in the United States.  And there are only five million Norwegians in Norway.  I decided early on that I should visit the Norwegian diaspora in the U.S.  During my visits, we have put together many collaborations between academic hospitals in the U.S. such as MD-Anderson in Houston and university hospitals here.

The Politic: How has your background as a lawyer helped you with your mission in Oslo?

I spent a number of years managing a law firm.  This has helped me because you need good diplomatic skills to run the firm and negotiations.  I also participated in a number of elections.  I was the chair of Paul Tsonga’s campaign for President.  I worked with John Kerry and his campaign, and then with Barack Obama.

The Politic: What kind of misconceptions do Norwegians have of America? And vice-versa?

I do not believe many people in the United States know anything about Norwegians, to be honest.  In terms of Norwegians’ perception of American culture: they learn English at a very young age.  They watch television and movies in English and they learn a lot about our culture from that and a lot of relatives in the U.S.  They do not understand our relationship with guns and the Second Amendment.  It is very hard to explain to them why people [in the U.S.] have the right to carry firearms.  They do not agree with the death penalty.  And they have difficulty understanding the differentiation between the top income and the lower and bottom income in the U.S. They strive for economic equality.  There is also not as much complaining about taxes; the economic foundation is very different.  Education, healthcare and retirement are paid for by the government.

The Politic: How do you feel that America is represented abroad, and are there any elements of American foreign policy that you would want to change?

The State Department does a terrific job at representing the United States abroad.  I have a sense that the American public does not fully appreciate foreign policy or the State Department.  The perception is that the State Department gets this huge budget and pays a huge amount in foreign aid to other countries.  But the budget is a pittance compared with other expenditures.  I wish there was more public support and Congressional support — and I think that affects foreign policy.

Embassy of the United States to Norway: http://norway.usembassy.gov/ambassador2.html